Mourning the Death of a Young Football Star

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Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor died Tuesday after he was shot in the leg after an apparent break-in at his home. Many suspect his death may be linked to incidents in his past. Columnist Drew Sharp says that, sadly, there is nothing shocking about a young, black male meeting a violent end.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Right now: Sean Taylor. When the 24-year-old died a little over 24 hours ago, many described his murder as a tragedy, but there were also many who were not surprised. Taylor, a star defensive back with the Washington Redskins was shot when somebody broke into his home in Southern Florida in the middle of the night. Taylor confronted the intruder outside the bedroom, where his girlfriend and his baby daughter were sleeping. It might have been a random burglary, but Taylor's house had been burgled less than two weeks earlier, and there is suspicion that his death may be linked to incidents in his past.

It's that part of Taylor's that life that led columnist Drew Sharp to write that while what happened is tragic and terrible, there was sadly nothing shocking about a young, black male meeting a violent end.

Drew Sharp writes for the Detroit Free Press and joins us in a moment. We also want to hear from you. Are we so numb to this kind of news that there's nothing shocking about it anymore? Why? 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Drew Sharp, welcome to the program.

Mr. DREW SHARP (Columnist, Detroit Free Press): Neal, glad to be a guest. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: My pleasure. In your piece, you write that you were among those who were not surprised by Sean Taylor's death.

Mr. SHARP: No, I'm not. It's a sad commentary for where we're at in society right now in that, you know, you see not just athletes but just - use it from the framework of a young, black male between the ages of 15 and 25, homicide is a leading cause of death. And unfortunately, here you have a young man who, you know, despite all these financial and career success, he was unable to avoid just becoming another sad number in that growing list. And, you know, what we're seeing with athletes today, I feel, is that more and more of them have to realize - this should be a wakeup call to these athletes that perhaps time has come to do things with there lives now, that perhaps it does not help them stand apart.

You know, celebrity has become a very dangerous occupation now. You see a lot of stories where athletes are becoming targets for carjackings and other episodes. And in Sean Taylor's case, you know, it could very well be that this was just a random burglary that went tragically arrive, but you cannot ignore the elephant in the room. You cannot ignore a trouble checkered past, in his brief NFL career, this young man had, and, you know, it could very well be that was a contributing factor in the cause of his death.

CONAN: By all accounts, Sean Taylor had changed over the last year and a half, in particular, after the birth of his daughter whom he apparently took almost everywhere with him and had shown signs of maturity. But, as you mentioned, there were a couple of incidents in his past where he brandished a - he was charged with brandishing a gun at some people who he thought were stealing some of his property and also charged with hitting somebody in the face with a pistol.

Mr. SHARP: Yeah, he was charged - he pled down to two misdemeanors for that so he was able to maintain his NFL career. He signed a $40 million contract with the Washington Redskins as a rookie in 2004. But, you know, there was another episode not long after that where one of his cars, an SUV, was - an assailant fired 15 shots into it, you know. Again, was that the cause of what happened in the bedroom of his Miami home? We do not know. The police are going to investigate that. But when looking for - to try to put this whole thing in its proper context, you cannot ignore his past and what he - what the situation he put himself in.

Again, by all accounts, from people who've played with him, who've known him the past year and a half, they're saying that he had turned the corner, that he had become more responsible with the way he viewed his own life, and it helped, you know, becoming a father for the first time. But I'm sure the police are, you know, - in a murder investigation of this magnitude because it's high profile, they're going to have to look at every angle for this. And his past is going to part of the story.

CONAN: You read consistently that Sean Taylor grew up in the mean streets of South Florida and, with, you know, rough crowd, but his father was the chief of police of the town next door from where he lived.

Mr. SHARP: Yup.

CONAN: He was a middle-class kid. He was not (unintelligible).

Mr. SHARP: He was a middle-class kid. I mean, the stereotype is that he grew up in the ghetto Miami. And that's not the case. He went to a very affluent suburban high school in the Miami area. Actually his father, I mean, how often do you hear of athletes who the father is never around and pretty much raised by a single mother. His father, Pedro, have a very significant part of his life.

But, you know, in - the way people need to look at this is that the situation when Sean Taylor first got into the NFL, it was though he surrounded himself with people of questionable character as if to suggest that for him, to be - to fill the role of a prominent black athlete, star athlete, that you have to associate yourself with people of questionable nature.

And that's, you know, if that's how these young people think, again, it shouldn't be a surprise to us that we're seeing these stories of how the NFL players, where you had Tank Johnson of the Chicago Bears was involved. It was a fight in a bar, in a shooting. His bodyguard was killed. Pacman Jones, another NFL player, you know, who was involved at an incident in a strip club. Part of his entourage fired a shot that paralyzed a man.

When you keep hearing stories like this, when you keep seeing players, these athletes conveniently fit themselves into a convenient stereotype like this, you know, this is why when you see a story like this, as tragic as it was with Sean Taylor, you're not surprised that it did occur.

CONAN: You also wrote that maybe the death of Sean Taylor should be a wakeup call, but you note in your piece that last year, on New Year's Eve, Denver defensive back Darrent Williams was shot and killed in the early hours in the night, sitting in the backseat of a stretched Hummer outside of a night club, when people shot up the car in a drive-by attack. Wasn't that - shouldn't that have been a wakeup call too?

Mr. SHARP: It should've been. Again, and - you know, at some point, these athletes, I do feel - black and white, these athletes in general feel that they are invulnerable to these type of things, these type of situations. But they must realize that celebrity comes with significant risks today because, you know, you are - you make yourself a convenient target now when you are a celebrity in sports or just an entertainer, period.

And, you know, you saw these stories about players getting their cars carjacked. I'm curious to know what those cars look like. I mean, I've been a sportswriter for 25 years, I've gone through a lot of parking lots where the players parked their cars and you see a lot of, you know, to steal their phrase, tricked out, pimped out cars, you know? And they do that for one reason, one reason only: they want to stand out. When I would think, maybe now, perhaps in this case, these athletes, these high-profiled people finally realize, you know what, I need to conduct my life in a way where I can still live it through the way I feel like I should be able to, but also not deliberately make myself stand out in a crowd to the point where I'm drawing potentially negative attention to myself.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in this conversation. Again, we're talking with Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press. And you can join us by calling 800-989-8255. Or zap us an e-mail: talk@npr.org.

And let's start with Michelle(ph). Michelle's calling - not far away, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

MICHELLE (Caller): Hi. I'm an emergency physician in Grand Rapids and at Allegan County here on the other side of the state from you, Drew.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHELLE: And I think it's more than just with the athletes. I think our whole culture has gotten to the point where people don't talk about beating each other up if they - if a couple of males have a problem with each other, they talk about how they're going to waste somebody or kill somebody. Our whole language suggests that the ultimate result of some kind of altercation is going to be death. And I really attribute that to what we're seeing in the media. And I know there's a lot of controversy about that, but I've seen some wonderful studies that really, really show it makes the difference.

CONAN: Well you see it there in the emergency room…

MICHELLE: Bet you. Shootings and stabbings. I saw one man who got stabbed by his brother because he took a cookie. He didn't live at home anymore, you know? And it just blows my mind to see that people think that this is the way that you handle these things. And, you know, I've been threatened with death for sewing up an 11-year-old's arm. You know, if you touch me, doc, I'm going to kill you, kind of thing. And, you know, when you're being bombarded by all these murders on TV and entertainment becomes "CSI," you know, what do these young people walk away with?

Mr. SHARP: Yeah, but you know, what's very easy is to just to say it's the media's fault. You know what, it starts at the home. It starts with the family. If you want to talk about the breakdown of society, it starts with the breakdown of the American family. There are no values there.

MICHELLE: Yeah.

Mr. SHARP: Again, there is no appreciation for the sanctity of life. And that now, everyone - there's always going to be confrontation in life. But what's happened now it's easy to inject guns or knives into that confrontation. And when that happens, that's when you meet a tragic ending.

MICHELLE: Correct. It's, you know, people can die from a direct assault, but that's a lot more unusual than when people start using weapons. And, you know, in terms of the breakdown of the home - I'm a divorced Catholic who didn't have a choice because of domestic violence. And I am very proud of the fact that I finally had the guts to walk out of an abusive relationship and raise my daughter in spite of the regular assaults I would take by, oh, you're daughter comes from a broken home. She's an outstanding athlete and honor student and has her mother's values and does volunteer work as I do. And so it's not just about those kinds of things. I mean I really think that…

Mr. SHARP: But you still have the values. And you ought to be commended for having the courage for doing what you did.

MICHELLE: But you have…

Mr. SHARP: And you still the values…

MICHELLE: …to be careful about…

Mr. SHARP: …you still have the strong values even though as a single mother.

MICHELLE: Yeah, I think we still have to be making careful judgments about some of these things. There's a lot of people out there with values who maybe don't have traditional families and - but, you know, we need to quit just idolizing the athletes and let's put a little bit more energy into, you know, drawing attention to our scholars.

CONAN: Michelle, we certainly hope your daughter will be one of them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHELLE: I am hoping so, too. Thanks for your time.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

MICHELLE: Bye-bye.

CONAN: We're talking with Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press about the murder of pro-football player Sean Taylor. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Lynn(ph), Lynn with us from Aurora, Illinois.

LYNN (Caller): Hi. I'd like to make a comment about the extreme difficulty to extricate oneself from a gang or gang-type relationship. I'm a high school teacher. I spent a lot of time working with dropout populations, working, you know, so hard with these kids to help them get a good life only to see them graduate from high school. Some go on to college and they are reinvolved with a gang. Those people are their friends, that's who they've grown up with and only to see them reinvolved with that.

And unfortunately, many of them do die in those situations. I mean, I've had several students that we've lost to that. When you thought you had them beyond - and we have kind of a really bleak motto and we say in our dropout program, you know, you can take the boy out of the gang, but it's really hard to take the gang out of the boy. And I think that some of the situation here…

CONAN: Well…

LYNN: I would also like to really thank you for using the term athlete as opposed to sportsman. And I think that's one of the issues in not only high school, college, but professional sports, is we are rewarding people for being athletes, not sportsman.

CONAN: Getting back to Lynn's first point, Drew Sharp, it's been written since the death of Sean Taylor that several of his friends, his father's advisers said, look, you need to get out of Southern Florida. Move to the Washington area, come back for visits. But you need to break with your previous crowd.

Mr. SHARP: Right. He needs to get away from that past. You know, and again, from all indications - I remember when the Redskins played at the Detroit Lions earlier this year. I was reading some stories about Taylor and how everyone was saying that he seemed to be maturing, that he was trying to put some space between where he was at now from his past.

But it's, you know - and because it's a tough thing to try and break free from that. But you know what, we all have to make choices in our lives. We all have to whether or not it's being with a gang, whatever, you reach a certain point where you have to decide that the people you associate with, are they going to affect you positively or negatively?

And, you know, and unfortunately in Sean Taylor's case, you know, two to three years ago, when he was a rookie in the NFL, he did align himself with some shaky characters. And, you know, again, we don't know if that had anything to do with his tragic death a couple of days ago, but it's something that cannot be ignored. You have to look at that as a distinct possibility.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Lynn.

LYNN: You're welcome. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And let's see if we can go to John(ph), John with us from Berkeley, California.

JOHN: I'm amazed that your guest just repeated something. He said: we don't know, but. And to me, it is unprofessional and irresponsible to speculate with no evidence whatsoever that this young man's past or his associations with anyone had anything to do with his death. He could be the victim of a random act of violence as many people are. And yet, we have this writer and others saying we don't know the facts, but. And I think it's irresponsible.

Mr. SHARP: No, it's not irresponsible. It's called - I think this is - what I did today I thought was balanced reporting. Our job in the media is to give you as many different angles of the story as possible.

JOHN: Based on the facts.

Mr. SHARP: We're not drawing conclusion. I'm not drawing a conclusion that we definitely know what happened. What we're trying to do is put everything out there that could pertain - that could be germane to this case.

JOHN: That is not…

Mr. SHARP: That was just - I think - that's just - that is the basic responsibility of a journalist. I believe what I did today, what I wrote today, I thought was a balanced report.

JOHN: I beg to disagree. Having worked with journalists for more than 20 years, I beg to disagree. I journalist could not put everything out there based on speculations with no evidence whatsoever.

Mr. SHARP: Well here's - part of the evidence, okay, we're talking about crime has been committed here. And I think you would agree as a journalist that part of the victim's history could very well play important part in piecing together what happened here. I'm certain that the police are certainly looking at his past as that, correct?

CONAN: I think they are. Yes.

Mr. SHARP: Yeah. So again, what we're doing as journalist right now is laying everything out there as balanced as possible. I believe I put in my column today that, yes, you know, it very well be that it was simply a home invasion. We also have the reports from people who have known Sean over the last year and a half saying positive things about him. Every - we included - I can only speak for myself - I included every aspect from what we know publicly of this man's character from the last four years into the story today. And that - I think that's just part of a basic reporting of this story.

Do we know the facts? Of course not. That's why we're saying it's up to the police. The police will investigate, but I thought it would be a biased report, important to journalism on my part. If I did a column, a story on this, it only keyed on what Taylor's family and his friends and coaches were saying that this was a great young man, ignorer the stuff that happened a couple of years ago, I will not be doing my job as a journalist if I ignored that.

CONAN: Drew Sharp, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. SHARP: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Drew Sharp, sportswriter for the Detroit Free Press. Lynn Neary will be here tomorrow. Of course, Ira on Friday. We'll see you Monday in a special broadcast from Des Moines, Iowa.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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